Premier League champions have rued the one that got away already this season after the Belgian midfielder's winner for Manchester City.
Chelsea short-termism proved costly with De Bruyne, now Salah has his chance to haunt former club
Chelsea’s past had beaten Chelsea’s present. Antonio Conte rued the decisions that were taken before his arrival. “We are talking about a top player, the complete player,” he said. “He’s good. Technical, fast, and he works hard for his team.”
Now the worst-case scenario is that history could repeat itself in the immediate future. The part of Kevin de Bruyne could be played on Saturday by Mohamed Salah. Once again, Chelsea could have reason to rue the one that got away.
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Their autumn has been laced with awkward reunions. They navigated their way through a meeting with Romelu Lukaku, the striker who never scored for them, with few alarms.
They had no such luck when they were defeated by a blast from the past as De Bruyne, who was only granted two league starts for Chelsea, rifled a superb shot to give Manchester City victory.
Now they face Liverpool’s Salah, scorer of a mere two goals as a Chelsea player, a total he equalled in the space of 11 minutes against Southampton last Saturday.
Like De Bruyne, the Egyptian surely meets Conte’s definition of a top player. Salah may not be as technical as the Belgian, but he is faster.
De Bruyne is the frontrunner to win the Footballer of the Year award. Salah is leading the race for the Golden Boot, the division’s nine-goal top scorer. He has scored doubles in his last two league games. Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp said, are in a “Mo Salah period.”
This threatens to be the season when Chelsea’s institutionalised short-termism costs them. The need to win immediately produces a reliance on the finished article. Lukaku, De Bruyne and Salah were all works in progress when they joined Chelsea; they have all progressed elsewhere.
That an emerging Lukaku was sold in the summer Diego Costa was signed may offer the emblematic example. Costa delivered two titles in three tempestuous seasons at Stamford Bridge. Lukaku is worth more now. The Manchester United top scorer was long compared to Didier Drogba, Chelsea’s totemic target man.
Salah and De Bruyne got caught up in the logjam of attacking midfielders and wingers. What their subsequent careers have revealed is that they were not interchangeable squad players, but unique talents.
There is not a midfielder like De Bruyne in England, a workhorse who has created more goals than anyone else since he joined City. His passing range is extraordinary, his ability to score in spectacular fashion with either foot a rarity.
There is not a winger like Salah: he was compared to Sadio Mane on arrival, but he is even more prolific. He is a wide man with a striker’s persistence. He has had the most shots on target in the division.
“I'm not surprised with Salah's performance this season,” said Jose Mourinho before United subdued Salah in a 0-0 draw. “I was aware of his great capabilities when he was with me at Chelsea.”
He rarely picked him, though. The simplistic element is just to blame Mourinho for the exiles of the three alumni now lighting up the Premier League. Actually, both Lukaku and De Bruyne agitated for a move. Each had the impatience to mean he would drop to lesser clubs for first-team football.
But there is a theme. Competition for places was at its fiercest in the creative department of the Chelsea team. As first De Bruyne and then Salah discovered, Mourinho had a pecking order which rarely changed. Eden Hazard topped it. He was the one flair player spared as many defensive duties as the others.
Mourinho liked to ally him with grafters. Willian has been a fine player for Chelsea, but was picked to the detriment of flashier, flair players. Oscar tended to join him in the side; the ultimate verdict may be that the Brazilian, while hugely profitable when he joined Shanghai SIPG, flattered to deceive.
Chelsea’s medal haul can provide vindication, but the preferential treatment afforded to Willian and Oscar and the primacy of Hazard came at a cost, in particular to De Bruyne and Salah. Perhaps Conte, had he been appointed earlier, would have made different decisions.
But with Willian likely to be a substitute, there is an onus on Hazard to outshine Salah, both to win Saturday’s game and to save face.